By now you have probably read all about the recent study in the Journal of Cosmology claiming that fossilized alien microbes exist inside a meteorite, about the undeniable eccentricity of the journal and the overwhelming skepticism and ire in the scientific community. As usual, Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker rounds up a lot of great links.
Here is my reporting on the subject for New Scientist – but there are some details we couldn’t quite fit. These aren’t newsworthy details; rather, they are intriguing historical details about one of the meteorites examined in the new study: the Orgueil meteorite.
A Brief History of the Orgueil Meteorite
Just after 8 pm on May 14, 1864, an enormous fireball seared a path through the sky over southern France, announcing its arrival with terrifying thunder. As villagers investigated—some flinging open doors and sprinting outdoors, others peering cautiously from behind windows—the burning boulder lost its white-hot glow, blushed red and fractured in the earth’s atmosphere. Around 20 ink-black pieces of space rock, most smaller than your fist, smashed into the earth near Orgueil, France.
The children dropped their dolls and spinning tops. They clambered over the hills and raced each other through the vineyards towards the twisting threads of smoke that rose from the ground here and there. The adults soon followed, for this was one Easter egg hunt in which they fully intended to participate.
In wagons and baskets and the folds of aprons, the villagers collected as many pieces of rock as they could find, totaling 20 kilograms in mass we estimate today. The pieces were soft enough to cut with a knife and disintegrated in water. A piece of the black rock properly shaped and sharpened could be used to write and draw as through it were a stick of charcoal.
Ever since, these fragments of the Orgueil meteorite—one of the most ancient meteorites ever discovered, perhaps older than the solar system—have been sliced, poked, crumbled and scrutinized by scientists, including NASA Scientist Richard Hoover, the author of the recent Journal of Cosmology study. But Hoover is by no means the first scientist to claim that the Orgueil meteorite is home to alien life.
French chemist François Stanislaus Clöez, perhaps the first scientist to examine a piece of the Orgueil meteorite, announced that it contained organic matter including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Immediately people began to question whether the organic compounds might have a biological origin—that is, whether they came from something that was once alive.
Another French chemist decided to peer inside the meteorite: none other than Louis Pasteur, who had recently dismissed the theory of spontaneous generation—the idea that life routinely springs from non-life. Pasteur designed a drill that could extract samples from the meteorite’s interior while avoiding any contamination by earthly microbes, but he found nothing to suggest organisms within the rock.
In 1962, Fordham University chemist Bartholomew Nagy published a paper in Nature pointing to signs of fossilized alien microbes in the Orgueil meteorite that he thought resembeld algae. They turned out to be pollen and fungal spores that had contaminated the sample on Earth.
Following Nagy’s study, a team of Chicago researchers asked to examine a piece of the meteorite housed in a glass jar in the museum at Montauban. When they cracked open the rock they found tiny seeds. Not fossilized bacteria, not little green men, but tiny brown almond-shaped seeds.
When the researchers’ brows unfurrowed and the astonished gasps extinguished themselves, the team decided to put a couple explanations to the test: either the seeds came from a bona fide extraterrestrial plant of some kind or they had infiltrated the meteorite on earth. X-ray analysis revealed that the seeds had not been swept into the rock by a serendipitous gust or shoved inside by the impact of a crash landing—they were too deeply embedded in the very matrix of the meteorite. Still, the idea that the Orgueil meteorite was an ark of alien plant life—that it literally contained the seeds of life—was simply too incredible. So the scientists looked even closer and settled on a more satisfactory explanation, on a far more human narrative.
It seems that back in the 19th century when the meteorite first crashed, someone, perhaps motivated by the controversy surrounding spontaneous generation, involved the Orgueil meteorite in a rather elaborate hoax. The perpetrator stole the fragment in question and dampened it to make it malleable. They then took some seeds from a grassy plant indigenous to southern France, powdered them with coal dust to disguise them a bit and embedded them in the rock. After letting the meteorite dry, the cunning charlatan brushed a little glue over the rock’s surface to mimic the glossy fusion crust of a meteorite that has endured a flaming journey to earth.
In all likelihood, the 19th century conman was hoping to fool some of his peers, but it seems his little joke went unnoticed until nearly a century later.
Scientists continued to study the Orgueil meteorite, but no one seems to have made any serious claims of alien life inside the fragments until—you guessed it—Richard Hoover came along. In fact, Hoover has made these claims at least three times: now, in 2011, as well as in 2004 and 2007.
(6) Nagy B, Claus G, Hennessy DJ (1962) Organic Particles Embedded in Minerals in Orgueil and Ivuna Carbonaceous Chondrites. Nature 193 (4821) p. 1129